By Emmett O’Connell
In 1903 John P. Fink, a newspaper man and promoter, had an idea for a baseball league.
Fink seemed to be a jack-of-all-trades sort of promoter in the era, is mostly mentioned in that gray area between public relations and newspapering. He wrote about sports, worked for newspapers, but also ran teams and leagues. In 1903 he is also noted in the first ever mention of the Southwest Washington League as “the manager of the Tacoma druggists” baseball team.
This is the same era that saw the consolidation in the high level minor leagues of the Pacific Coast League between California and Pacific Northwest teams. The highest level of baseball on the west coast to that point had been split between the two. In 1903 the two warring baseball regions joined together in an outlaw league.
The Pacific Coast League was operated outside the rules of organized baseball. That meant, for example, they could sign players outside existing contracts of other leagues that played inside the rules.
Was it because of the attention being paid to the Portland Browns, Tacoma TIgers and Seattle Siwashes in the press that Fink saw opportunity in a baseball circuit throughout timber towns in bottom left hand corner of Washington? The Pacific Coast League was no small undertaking.
Baseball had been growing along the west coast since after the Civil War, with Portland teams playing since the late 1860s. It slowly expanded from a game played between clubs and soldiers to a game of semi-pros and pros, business patrons and fans paying gate.
The new regional league from Los Angeles to Seattle was outside the bounds of baseball law, but Fink sought to toe the line. 1903 was also the first year of the National Association, the agreement major league baseball on the East and midwest and minor leagues throughout the country. This agreement gave certainty to players and owners (mostly owners) that contracts would be recognized across professional leagues and that poached players could not re-enter organized baseball without outlaw teams paying up.
This was also the agreement that Pacific Coast League ignored, if only for a year or so. But, the smaller (class D) Southwest Washington League was inside the law from the beginning. This was even fact trumpeted by the the league in “The Reach Official American League Base Ball Guide.”
The Southwest Washington League, under the protection of the National Association, enjoyed a most successful season, financially and artistically, under the able administration of President John P. Fink, of Olympia. The season opened May 10, 1903, and closed September 6, with Aberdeen and Hoquiam tied for the pennant. Hoquiam refused to play a post-season series to decide the tie, and the league directors awarded the pennant to Aberdeen.
Fink first reached out to organizers of local teams in the timber towns early in 1903, asking them if their communities had it in them to step up to professional baseball. First on his list were Olympia, Chehalis, Centralia, Montesano, Aberdeen and Hoquiam.
These six cities were at the time very similar. Today, they stand apart culturally and demographically, Olympia in particular. In more than a century, Olympia has gone from a timber town in the same classification as Aberdeen and Chehalis (with a state capitol) to a city on the southern edge of the Puget Sound metroplex. Olympia grew from just under 4,000 to more than 10 times that size.
But, as Fink sent out his inquiries in early 1903, these really were cities of the same league.
By February 1903 almost 20 Olympia businessmen had lined up behind the team, putting up the nearly the entire sum needed to enter the league. The entrance fee of $250 that Fink and other organizers wanted in 1903 to enter the league worked out to be about $6,000 today.
Gathering investors, officially forming the league, putting together a board of directors were early steps for the Olympia team in the Southwest League. By mid-February the local electric utility — Olympia Light and Power — promised to rip down a defunct veladrome (bike track) on the bluff above their powerhouse. The plan was to use the timbers to build a grandstand and bleachers on the stadium site, which also coincidentally was along the OL&P’s streetcar line.
In April, Olympia baseball men were calling the home field “Electric Park” but it was not yet fit to practice on. Process on the park is going slow, despite the effort of the OL&P company.
When the Olympia Maroons opened in a exhibition on April 19, 1903 against the Tacoma Athletes, an amatuer team, Olympia won 4-1. Six hundred Olympians supported the Maroons with “lusty yells” according to the newspaper account.
The board of directors meetings for the Olympia Maroons were public in 1903 and were covered like local government meetings. For example, a decision to charge admission is discussed in a regular news column. It cost 25 cents to get into the park, and additional 25 cents to get into the grandstands. Ladies get into the grandstands for free.
And, by May 10 the Southwest Washington League was in action.
The first really big event of the baseball schedule is on May 22 when President Roosevelt came to town and Aberdeen played a “President Day” special the same afternoon. A train full of Harborites came into town with their ball team to see the Bull Moose but the Pippins lost to the Maroons.
As it turns out, Olympia was a pretty bad team. By August, the Morning Olympian was advising against betting on the Maroons. Or, at least during league games, during which the Maroons were apparently snake bit:
Any man will tell you, provided he has money on the game, that he is willing to back the Maroons against any team in the Pacific National or the Outlaw leagues, on exhibition, but when it comes to Southwest Washington league games he will hereafter save his money to buy bread…
That’s a difference between today and then. While teams like Olympia would play throughout the week against teams in and out of their league, only weekend games played against other SWWL teams counted towards the standings. Apparently Olympia was a weekday team.
By August things were getting worse for the league on a much larger scale. Hoquiam was threatening to leave the league.
They seemed to have sarcasm back then as the Hoquiam Perfect Gentlemen were apparently not perfect or gentlemen. Well, if you assumed that amatuer ball players who worked mill jobs during the week and played in the SWL on the weekend, aren’t gentlemen. The all-amatuer team from Hoquiam was leading the league in August against teams made up of a mix of professional and amateurs. This apparently led to a decision by the owners of the other teams to expand the number of league games, which ate into Hoquiam’s small league lead.
Hoquiam stayed in the league, but not without dragging arguments through organizational meetings and letters.
At the end of the first season, half the league had 11 wins, the other 7.
Aberdeen Pippins 11-7 .611
Hoquiam Perfect Gentlemen 11-7 .611
Centralia Midgets 7-11 .389
Olympia Maroons 7-11 .389
In September the Maroons needed financial help. The Elks and Foresters clubs ended up holding a charity baseball game to support the town’s professional ball teams. This is an auspicious end to Olympia pro-baseball in 1903. Two amatuer ball teams were raising funds for the pro team.
The league would play three years before breaking apart. In 1904 the Maroons became the Senators and in 1905 Centralia was replaced by Montesano Farmers.
In early May 1905, the Morning Olympian introduced the players as if they’re elected officials: Senator Cook, Senator Christian, Senator Almost Stubavor Dye. “A newly elected member who represents the Solid South is Senator Autray.”
Its obvious why the Olympian was practically begging Olympians to come out to support the Senators in 1905. Its the same reason Mayor P.H. Carlyon was deciding whether to declare a half civic holiday for their home opener. Just like in the 1903 season, the hope of a warm Olympia May was smashed by the the heat of August and the league was again in financial trouble. In 1903, August featured a dust up between Hoquiam and the league. In 1905 it was the very fate of the league.
In early August the owners came together in an Aberdeen hotel. At the urging of Montesano and Aberdeen, they decided to press on, despite very real financial concerns for the rest of the league.
Then two days later, the Olympian carries this passage in a otherwise typical homestand preview:
The Kids (the team’s nickname in the paper is the Panama Kids for some reason) have played good ball all season, and have been a good advertisement for Olympia all the way. They have not received the support at home that they deserved. The league this year has been faster than ever before and a team that at this time is in second position with a chance still left for the pennant is worth of support of any city in this state. Turn out today, and tardy though you are, be there with the big boost and help the team out, not only with your presence, but encourage them with your two-bit piece. That’s where they need your help most. It costs money to run a team and every citizen should help defray this expense. Olympia needs a team and should be glad to pay for it when she has a team like the present one.
They need you two-bit the most, your fandom second. The team is an advertisement for the city. It costs money to run a team, Olympia needs a team, every citizen should pitch in. Seems like the newspaper is making an argument for a road or a school than a baseball team.
And, unfortunately, the Senators and what they mean for Olympia are in deep trouble as 1905 ends and the baseball men began to look to 1906.
1905 SW Washington League Standings
Montesano 25-10 (.705)
Olympia 20-16 (.555)
Aberdeen 17-17 (.500)
Hoquiam 9-27 (.250)
The Senators finished well behind the Farmers and in late winter 1906 the ground is being laid for a pro-baseball free Southwest Washington. While a league may not come around, but the possibility of an independent team in Olympia is brought up. The increased interest in baseball from amatuer clubs is also mentioned as a bright spot. A local league between Hoquiam and Aberdeen clubs (with the support of the streetcar company between the towns) is promised, but no one knows if they want to start a league between other cities.
While parlaying Olympia interest in reviving the D-level SWL, the Grays Harbor towns (Cosmopolis, in addition to Hoquiam and Aberdeen) jump up into the B-level Northwestern League. The class A Pacific Coast League (by 1906 not an outlaw, but a law-abiding member of Organized Baseball) includes Seattle and Portland along with California cities. The combined Harbor cities join other second tier cities in the region, such as Spokane, Tacoma and Butte, Montana.
Surviving as the Grays Harbor Lumberman and Grays, and the Aberdeen Black Cats, the Harbor super team plays in the Northwestern League until 1910 when the league drops them. The Northwestern League was in those years somewhere in the historic backwash of the legendary (and sometimes considered major league) Pacific Coast League. Cities like Seattle, Portland and Spokane would fall out of the PCL and into the Northwest League and then back up again.
After being bounced out of the Pacific Northwest League in 1910, Grays Harbor baseball supporters tried to put back the old SWL. Olympia had fielded an independent team in 1909 and felt up to the task.
But, only if things would be different in 1910. Olympia only wanted games on the weekend and no expanding the league schedule (like what happened to Hoquiam in 1903) to shoo out smaller clubs. Olympia also asked for a strict salary cap. “What we are planning on is a league run in such a manner that there will be no danger of it getting along nicely until the Fourth of July and then going to pieces,” said a baseball supporter. While Olympia wanted a ball team in 1910, they wanted it under more humble standards.
In addition to the old SWL towns (Olympia, Centralia, Chehalis, Hoquiam and Aberdeen), Elma, South Bend and two Tacoma teams are also considered. But, the 1910 Class D Washington State League did not end up including Olympia. The cost of travel, keeping players and drawing fans drove Olympia’s interest away from the league.
Olympia ended up fielding semi-pro, unaffiliated with Organized Baseball teams through the 1920s. Eventually even interest in that level of baseball lagged in the capital city.
Gordon Newell describes the final death of semi-pro Olympia Senators in Rogues, Buffoons and Statesmen decades later. The midsummer curse did the baseball Senators in again:
The coming of electronic home entertainment media may have provided the final straw which, added to the summer mobility of the family motor car, broke the back of paid admission baseball in the capital city. The sport itself was popular enough. The local merchants organized a twilight league and the sawmills fielded amatuer teams in the sawdust league. The Olympia Senators even began the season bravely under the leadership of ex-major leaguer Ham Hyatt, but by the end of July the lack of patronage caused the semi-pro players to give up in disgust and turn the new Stevens Field over to high school and amatuer teams.